TEMPE, Ariz. — Michael Staten saw it before anyone else did.
How Kyler Murray outthought and outmaneuvered his opponents. How Murray processed information, quickly solving problems. How he won gracefully and humbly and led by example. How he became popular despite being soft-spoken.
And Staten saw Murray win. A lot. But not on the football field. Not on the baseball diamond either.
No, Staten witnessed all of these traits while Murray sat behind a chessboard.
Years before Murray was a Texas high school football and baseball legend, before he was a Heisman winner at Oklahoma, before he was a first-round pick of the Oakland A’s and the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NFL draft, before he was the face of the Arizona Cardinals — who on Thursday face the unbeaten San Francisco 49ers (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox/NFL Network) — Staten recruited him to the chess club at Degan Elementary School in Lewisville, Texas.
And since leaving Degan 12 years ago, Murray’s passion for chess has remained a quiet part of who he is. It has shaped his strategy and confidence on the field, while sharpening his mind off it.
Murray was in fourth grade when Staten, a science teacher at Degan, introduced him to chess.
By then, the young prodigy was already winning championships in youth football and baseball while dominating his uncles in Scrabble and Connect 4. Murray’s mom, Missy, used board games in Kyler’s childhood as a way of teaching her son how to use his head critically and strategically.
Staten had gotten to know Murray during recess football games on the playground. The teacher always played quarterback and assigned the teams, and Murray’s side often dominated. But on the days Murray’s team didn’t win, he would return to class an unhappy 10-year-old.
One day, Staten, the chess club adviser, invited Murray and a couple of his friends, including current Denver Broncos practice squad wide receiver Trinity Benson, to join the club.
“The chess club that I had wasn’t perceived as a nerdy thing or just for the intellectuals,” said Staten, who became Murray’s home room and science teacher in fifth grade. “It was just a popular thing among everybody. We had all types of people in there, from students who had a hard time learning and doing well, to students who were straight A’s and gifted and talented, to the athletic kids.
“It was a real good mixture of everyone.”
From 3 to 3:45 p.m. on Thursdays in the Degan library, Murray and his friends joined fellow chess club members (about 110 total) in commanding pawns, rooks and bishops. Benson said he and Murray fell in love with chess right away and began toppling their classmates before long.
Murray had never played chess before joining but quickly began winning the weekly tournaments. Games were set up similarly to pickup basketball — winner stayed, loser took a walk. Murray would sit at his little elementary school desk and dismiss his opponents one by one.
“I took pride in it, for sure, just because I take pride in everything I do,” Murray said.
“Most athletes probably aren’t going to be that good at chess, so we were coming in, beating the guys that you would call — I don’t call them nerds, but the guys that are supposed to be smarter than us. So it was kind of funny to see us go to the chess club and run it.”
Murray also knew how to keep his composure during a match. He never walked away from a game — a rarity for elementary school players, according to Staten — or swept the board clean of the pieces in frustration.
Staten also remembered that Murray was never one to talk smack or gloat about his wins.
“I don’t remember him ever hurting someone’s feelings,” Staten said. “They would lose to him, but they still came away feeling good about it. … He was very kind to his opponents, treated them with respect, fairness.”
Turns out, Murray bottled up his trash talk for his friendly rival, Benson. The two were elite local athletes and damn good at chess too, so Murray had plenty of fodder for Thursday afternoons when they sat down across from each other at the chessboard.
“It was friendly, but he always bragged, just like I would if I beat him,” Benson said.
Every year, the club held tournaments for each grade level: single-elimination affairs with seeding to ensure that the best players wouldn’t face one another in the early rounds. In fourth grade, his first year playing, Murray was victorious. In fifth grade, he coasted through the tournament and found Benson awaiting him in the final. He dispatched his friend as well, becoming the Degan Elementary chess champion, a title he still holds over Benson’s head.
“He was always thinking four or five moves ahead,” Benson said. “So you kind of want to stay ahead of him. He also had a good poker face, so don’t let him bluff you.
“He was a hell of a chess player.”
The duo, two of Lewisville’s best athletes, continued to play until seventh grade, crisscrossing their neighborhood for quick games at each other’s house. The way Benson remembers it, he and Murray traded wins back and forth.
Murray doesn’t quite recall it that way.
“Nah, nah, nah,” Murray said with a laugh. “I used to beat his ass.”
Sitting on a padded folding chair at his locker inside the Cardinals’ practice facility after a recent practice, Murray was momentarily stressed. He couldn’t find his phone. He dug through his locker and checked his shorts pockets. Nothing.
His phone, as it is for many 22-year-olds, is a cornerstone of his world. He sits in front of the same locker after most practices with his head buried in his iPhone, scrolling through Instagram, watching videos or texting. Sometimes he’ll put in his AirPods and get on a call, taking a few minutes to block out everything around him and decompress.
On this day, he didn’t have a chance to give his phone the obligatory once-over after practice. As he sat down in his black sweatpants and black practice jersey to talk, it was clear his days of elementary school chess tournaments were long over.
But he still plays chess — Chess With Friends, that is — usually against strangers over the course of a week or two per game.
If his online competitors paid close enough attention, they could probably figure out they were facing an NFL star in the making.
“My name is kind of obvious, but I don’t think they would even put it together that I was playing,” Murray said.
So, what is it?
“I don’t know if I can put that one out there,” he said with a laugh.
Most teammates, coaches and even close friends — from former Oklahoma teammate Baker Mayfield to current Murray target Christian Kirk — don’t put it together either. But they aren’t surprised to learn the quarterback is a chess whiz.
“Honestly, he’s a competitive kid, so I’m not surprised,” said Los Angeles Rams rookie tackle Bobby Evans, who played with Murray in high school and at Oklahoma. “He’s a quarterback, so he’s got to know everything on the field, and basically I guess the chessboard can be his field.”
Keeping the hobby to himself is just how Murray rolls these days.
But that’s just how he is. He’s naturally quiet — always has been, dating back to his grade school years. Despite being the first pick in the draft, the quarterback and the face of a franchise, he understands his place in a locker room and on a team. But as Murray has emerged from his shell, especially when it comes to football — and specifically this offense, which he has run since eighth grade — everyone listens.
Murray isn’t usually the one to initiate conversations but won’t shy away if someone else does. He tends to stick with the other young players on the team, doing things young, rich men do, like play lots of video games.
For the most part, he’s liked around the Cardinals’ locker room. But there are a good number of players who just don’t know him well enough to cast judgment one way or the other.
Murray didn’t always keep his life to himself. He used to bring up his fourth- and fifth-grade chess championships as icebreakers in classes on the first day of high school, said Ryan Hoogerwerf, who was Murray’s backup at Allen High School for two seasons.
“It’s one of those things that I think he takes a lot of pride in,” Hoogerwerf said. “It’s funny because you just don’t think of that. It’s against the ‘jock’ stigma, but he enjoys it.”
Ever the unconventional strategist, Murray typically uses the same opener: He’ll move the pawn that’s in front of his king two spaces. It doesn’t matter whether he’s going first or second. If he’s feeling out his opponent, he might move one space. If he wants to throw a rare curveball, he’ll move one of his knights.
He says he can tell by his opponents’ first moves whether they’re good or bad. But Murray can’t remember a time when he was bad at chess.
“I think just because of how I was born with the feel of just how to see things before they happen, I guess,” Murray said, “which applies to a lot of things.”
Including — and especially — football.
Murray is “so boom, boom, boom with his reads,” Kirk said. “He can go faster, so you can see the way his brain processes. He just picks up on things faster.
“When the ball’s snapped and it’s all happening, he can just process it faster.”
“I can see him benefiting from the ‘several moves ahead’ aspect of chess,” said Sam Carpenter, Murray’s travel baseball coach in high school. “As he began to understand the game [of baseball], he began to anticipate. His quickness and speed made it particularly easy for him once he realized what he could do.”
Spatial awareness, says Sam Shankland, an American grandmaster and 2018 U.S. Chess Championship winner, is a top requirement for success on the chessboard. Murray felt his spatial awareness begin developing in middle school, and it has continued to grow at every level, including now in the NFL.
“Obviously, in football you can study somebody, but at the same time, once you get out there, I think there’s just a natural kind of feel for where you think guys might be or where they’re going to go and knowing beforehand what’s going to happen,” Murray said. “It’s just like chess.”
Because of his size, Murray has often had to play more unconventionally and aggressively. That type of aggressiveness was apparent to Shankland when he watched video of Murray from earlier this season.
“It’s interesting: He’s clearly a guy that takes a lot of risks, which is something that you would say is pretty common among chess players because we’ve always believed that just because something is risky does not mean you should not do it if it’s the best decision,” Shankland said. “Just seeing him play, it doesn’t surprise me he’s a chess player.”
Through half a season of his young NFL career, Murray hasn’t had much luck finding teammates to duel.
So far, just one: Charles Kanoff, the former Cardinals practice squad quarterback who’s now in the same role with Tampa Bay.
Murray challenged Kanoff to a game after seeing him play on his phone one day in the locker room. In breaks during quarterback meetings, the two would knock out a few moves each, with Murray occasionally declaring victory several moves before checkmate.
“He will go for crazy moves,” Kanoff said. “He’s confident, aggressive, tries to go for sacrifices. I guess that’s somewhat unconventional. … He’ll go for a crazy checkmate that you never see. Like it’s a whole plot.”
It’s all part of Murray’s plan to be good at everything. He takes chances. He takes risks. All to be good.
“I never wanted to be mediocre at anything,” he said. “I was never taught to lose or take losing. I obviously understand how to lose but always want to win.”